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Doomed Lion Air flight's pilots reportedly scoured Boeing 737 Max manual as plane went down

New details on Lion Air Boeing 737 Max jet
Lion Air Boeing 737 Max jet reportedly nearly crashed the day before 01:28

London — New information has emerged about the crash late last year of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 jet in Indonesia that suggests the flight crew was ill prepared to deal with a problematic new flight control system. CBS News reported in November that Lion Air Flight JT610's flight data recorder showed the pilots battled the new anti-stall system known as "MCAS" for much of the doomed 11-minute flight. Now a report citing data from the other so-called black box, the cockpit voice recorder, suggests the flight crew didn't even understand what they were fighting, and may have had no idea how to override the malfunctioning system.

The Reuters news agency quoted three people "with knowledge of the cockpit voice recorder contents" as saying the pilots could be heard frantically scouring a quick reference guide to figure out why the nearly-new jet was repeatedly going into a dive. The recording apparently includes audio of the pilots speculating about a problem with the plane's airspeed controls, not the MCAS system.

The MCAS system has emerged as one of the central themes in the investigations into the Lion Air disaster and the crash just five months later of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 jet. Investigators have acknowledged "clear similarities" between the two disasters, and Boeing's 737 Max jets have been grounded globally.

Separately, Bloomberg reported Tuesday that the same Lion Air plane that crashed on Oct. 29 may have narrowly avoided a crash the previous day, thanks to a pilot hitching a ride in the cockpit who correctly diagnosed the problem and told the flight crew how to fix it.

It was a different crew operating the 737 Max the day after that incident, Bloomberg said, citing two people with knowledge of Indonesia's investigation into the crash.

Boeing, FAA employees told to retain 737 Max jet certification documents 02:43

The reports raise further questions about the training provided for pilots before they were put behind the controls of Boeing's newest passenger jet, which entered commercial use in 2017.

CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave reported this week that U.S. airline pilots were initially given just 56 minutes of training — on an iPad — about the differences between the new Boeing Max planes and the older 737s.

It remains unclear what training was given to non-U.S. airline pilots, but in its report Bloomberg said the hitchhiking pilot who may have saved the flight the day before the Lion Air disaster, "told the crew to cut power to the motor driving the nose down ... part of a checklist that all pilots are required to memorize."

Boeing 737 Max pilots can flip just two switches to override the MCAS system. The flight control system is known to have malfunctioned on multiple flights, wrongly sensing a dangerous rate of ascent due to a faulty exterior sensor and overcorrecting by pushing the nose of the plane down.

Another major question being asked in the wake of the two crashes is whether Boeing was too closely involved in the U.S. government's certification process for the new aircraft.

Van Cleave reported on Tuesday that the Transportation Department had confirmed its inspector general is investigating how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified the Boeing 737 Max jets. Federal authorities have ordered staffers at Boeing and the FAA to retain all documents relating to the certification of the troubled jet.

FAA, Boeing relationship under scrutiny after deadly crash 01:56

"We are bending over too much to the corporate interests and not enough to the public interest in the areas of safety," Rep. Steve Cohen said this week. He has called for hearings on a certification process he worries has become too cozy.

After 9/11, Congress approved a system that allows manufactures like Boeing to largely self-certify aircraft — including their safety systems.

Boeing was under intense market pressure ahead of the new 737 Max jets' release to get it into service, to compete with European rival Airbus' newest passenger jet.

Van Cleave reported in November last year, citing information from the flight data recorder on Lion Air Flight JT610 that the pilots fought the downward tilt more than two dozen times until finally losing control and crashing into the Java Sea at 450 mph.  

Aeronautical engineer Peter Lemme reviewed the data from the investigator's preliminary report.

"This is a situation where they're flying the plane manually, they don't expect this kind of motion, so that definitely threw them off," he told CBS News.

Boeing reacts to 737 Max crisis

The Chicago-based aerospace giant announced on Wednesday that it was reallocating engineering resources within its commercial airplane division. Van Cleave reported that the company installed a new Vice President of Engineering and appointed another executive to focus on the crash investigations.

An internal email from Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO Kevin McAllister, obtained by CBS News, announced that John Hamilton would be the division's new chief engineer.

Hamilton will, "fully dedicate his attention to the ongoing accident investigations," McAllister wrote in the division-wide email, "as we prioritize and bring on additional resources for the ongoing accident investigations."

A shot of Boeing's 737 Max 8 airplanes from the company's website.   Eric Greer/Boeing

Hamilton was the commercial airplane division's VP of Engineering for most of the last three years. Van Cleave said Hamilton was familiar with the 737 aircraft platform having served for a time as the chief project engineer on the 737 family previously, before being promoted to a different position in July of 2013. The 737 Max project was launched on August 30, 2011.

Long-time Boeing engineer and executive Lynne Hopper was  to replace Hamilton VP of Engineering for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

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